The power to prosecute is an awesome power that confers the ability to ruin people's lives, which is why an attorney general should use that power judiciously.
There should be, to borrow from language in currency at the Obama Department of Justice these days, "balance." When authorities uphold federal drug laws, they should target the worst offenders first, not prosecute and jail their biggest critics.
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, a campaign spokesman told me Obama "believes that states and local government are best positioned to strike the balance between making sure that these policies are not abused for recreational drug use and making sure that doctors and their patients can safely access pain relief."
When Oregon's Willamette Week asked Obama if he would stop federal raids on medical marijuana facilities, he answered, "I would, because I think our federal agents have better things to do, like catching criminals and preventing terrorism."
Those remarks suggested that, as president, Obama would leave marijuana enforcement to local officials in the 18 states that have legalized medical marijuana.
Yet under Attorney General Eric Holder, the Obama Department of Justice has declared war on medical marijuana dispensaries. Last week in Sacramento, U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced that his office had cut a plea agreement with Matthew Davies, 35, a bistro owner and small-business man with an MBA, who "set out to build a lucrative marijuana empire in the Central Valley, even though he knew that this conduct was illegal under federal law." Davies will serve five years in prison and pay a big fine. Already, he has forfeited $100,000.
The smart and humane course would be to place Davies, who already has been wiped out financially, on probation or home detention. By putting him behind bars for five years, the Feds end his ability to hire workers for his bistro and other concerns, erase the taxes he would have paid, and take a father from his wife and two daughters.
And for what? Will illicit marijuana use go down? I don't think so.
After a high-profile press campaign waged by attorney Steven Ragland and public relations ace Chris Lehane to win a pardon or lenient sentence, Davies caved because federal mandatory minimum sentences lack all proportion. Wagner asserts that Davies faced a 40-year sentence if found guilty of three of the 10 counts filed against him. That's an insane sentence for a first-time nonviolent drug offender.
"It's not just incarceration" that bleeds taxpayers, noted Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access. "It's also the investigation. It's also the prosecution."